No ‘Dances of Joy’ Likely On Union Square’s Streets

As anyone who lives or works near Union Square Park can attest, cars and pedestrians—especially at the death-defying intersection of 17th Street and Broadway—sometimes don’t co-exist peacefully.

Recently, the city’s Department of Transportation completed a study of the traffic situation around Union Square. The study hasn’t been released to the public, but The Observer obtained a summary. In it, the D.O.T. makes suggestions for improving the flow of traffic that fall well short of the measures suggested by the Community Board 5 and Transportation Alternatives, a biking and pedestrian advocacy group.

The D.O.T. recommendations call for prohibiting some curbside parking on East 19th Street between Fifth and Park avenues, shifting the timing of the traffic lights at Broadway and 19th Street, and prohibiting parking on the south side of East 13th Street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Last Wednesday, Board 5’s transportation committee drafted a resolution in response to the D.O.T. proposals. Among the suggestions: additional signage for both pedestrians and vehicles; longer light signals and the introduction of “Barnes dances,” where signals at intersections periodically give pedestrians the right of way in all directions (so named after a traffic commissioner who championed their use; pedestrians were said to dance with joy when they were first introduced); better traffic enforcement on Union Square West; and a more comprehensive traffic study for the larger Union Square Park area.

But Transportation Alternatives wants to go even further. The group recommended banning certain turns at select intersections around the park; adding more bicycle parking; narrowing 17th Street and normalizing its intersections at Broadway and Park Avenue South; and transforming Union Square West into an “all-access street,” where the delineation between pedestrian and auto space is removed, forcing drivers to yield space and control to pedestrians (a widely acclaimed traffic-calming method used principally in Europe).

The group also wants the addition of a mid-block crosswalk on 17th Street on the north side of the park, a provision that was nearly included in the transportation committee’s resolution. But there were concerns about backing up traffic to Broadway, as well as a question of whether federal regulations prohibit crosswalks on such short blocks, according to John Mills, the committee’s chair.

But Tresa Horney, a campaign coordinator with Transportation Alternatives, pointed to the imminent redesign and removal of the police-barricade fence that currently runs along the park’s northern perimeter. “I think that this is an important place where improvements need to be implemented,” Ms. Horney said. “And with the installation of an added playground space at the north end of the park … it’s another motivation to make the area safer and focus more on pedestrian needs and less on autos.”

Karen Shaw, the executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the local business-improvement district, said that she welcomed the D.O.T.’s study as “a great first step. I don’t think there are quick fixes,” she continued, “but I do think there are a series of changes that can be discussed, and the D.O.T. is willing to discuss, to ensure that this community’s needs are being met.”

Board 5 will vote on the transportation committee’s recommendations on Thursday, Nov. 10.

Corrections, MCI Draw Fire for State Prison Phone Rates

Prisoners in New York State correctional facilities depend upon telephone service to remain in contact with family members—in fact, according to a Department of Correctional Services press release, the maintenance of family ties actually reduces recidivism.

But activists say that the Department of Correctional Services and the telecommunications company MCI have both been profiting unfairly from that service.

MCI has been under contract since 1996 to supply telephone service for New York State inmates. Unlike federal prisoners, state inmates can only place collect calls. According to the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, a prisoner advocacy group, MCI charges approximately 630 percent more than other calling plans available to the public. (MCI charges a $3 surcharge for each call, in addition to a rate of 16 cents per minute.) And because the DOCS receives 57.5 percent of MCI’s revenues, the department has made a whopping $175 million since the contract began.

“It really is as if there’s a campaign against New York City in this,” said Ken Brambill, co-chair of Community Board 4’s housing, health and human-services committee. Mr. Brambill said that many prisoners held upstate are from New York City, some with families too poor to accept collect calls. The board approved a resolution on Thursday, Nov. 2, calling for the State Senate to pass a bill requiring competitive pricing and alternative calling plans for inmates, and forbidding the DOCS to receive revenues from the contract in excess of reasonable operating costs. (Two other community boards in the city have passed similar resolutions.)

“It’s about families—keeping families together, family values—and about rehabilitation and public safety,” said a spokesperson for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Because all of the studies show that if someone’s incarcerated, the key to their success on getting out is maintaining solid ties to the community and family, so they’re less likely to get in trouble and end up in prison again.”

Because of two pending lawsuits filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is working in tandem with the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, the DOCS wouldn’t comment. A report available on the department’s Web site asserts that special security features on the phone lines necessitate the higher prices.

“That’s fine,” the C.C.R. spokesperson countered, “but the federal prisons charge a fraction of the rates, and you have to assume they have the same concerns as state prisons. It just doesn’t wash at all.”

Indeed. And Bernard Ebbers, the former chief of WorldCom (now MCI, Inc.)—who was sentenced to 25 years for his role in orchestrating the biggest corporate fraud in the nation’s history—should be relieved to hear that calls placed from federal prisons cost only seven cents per minute.

MCI also refused to comment, referring all inquiries to the DOCS.